A few things are true about almost every car on the market: They're overpriced, scratch way too easily, and the center console--packed with the media controls, navigation system, and Bluetooth connectvity for your smartphone--always, always, always kind of sucks.
That's why Google and Apple both have partnered with auto manufacturers to make those consoles better with smarter smartphone connectivity and elegant interfaces.
That's great in principle, but what if you don't have a shiny new car with one of those built-in interfaces? No worries: Google just released a little something called Android Auto--an app for everyone with an Android phone, and it works in any car, anywhere. Confused? We don't blame you. Here's everything you need to know about this new app and how you can use it to awesome up your car.
By the way, we just dedicated an episode of the One Cool Thing podcast to a discussion of Android Auto. Give it a listen.
1. Originally, it was a platform intended to integrate your phone with your car
Imagine starting yourt car and automatically seeing an Android-like interface on the car's center console, working together with your phone to let you use Google Maps, send text messages, listen to your music collection, and more.
That's basically what Android Auto is all about, and it works by combining an app on your phone with an interface in compatible cars from manufacturers who have partnered with Google.
2. But now all you need is your phone
Here's the huge news: As of November 7, 2016, Android Auto no longer requires special hardware in a car to work. Instead, a newly updated version of the app works all by itself on your Android phone. The revised app delivers a streamlined and easy-to-navigate interface with minimal clutter and distraction. That's right, all you need now is a phone that's running Android 5.0 Lollipop or later.
If you meet that requirement, you can download Android Auto from the Google Play store to your phone right now.
3. The app is free
4. It can start automatically
If you tell Android Auto which Bluetooth device is your car, it'll launch automatically when you start your engine (and can even wait until you take it out of your pocket or purse--yeah, it's that smart).
And when you end your trip, the app closes automatically when you turn off your car.
5. Android Auto keeps you safe by limiting what you can do
Android Auto displays your currently playing music or podcast, along with the weather and some navigation destinations (like your home, office, and places pulled out of your calendar meetings).
You can dial the phone or speed dial a favorite. Everything is big and easy to tap, so you don't have to take your eyes off the road for long.
6. It's compatible with a slew of apps
There's a hefty list of common apps that work with Android Auto. You can run Spotify from within the Auto interface, for example, and can select music from your library or do some browsing.
7. Google Assistant is available by voice
Tap the big, fat microphone to ask for things by voice. You can ask Google to make a phone call, send a text, navigate, or do ordionary web searches. Google, of course, talks back.
8. Navigation is an important part of Android Auto
After you set a destination--either by voice or by tapping a shortcut--you can get your navigation advice via turn-by-turn cards on the main Auto screen that tell you what you need at the right time, or by looking at the usual Google Maps view.
Ands you can easily switch back and forth between the two.
9. Nothing is stored in your car
One of the coolest things about Android Auto is that nothing is specific to or stored in your vehicle. All the action happens on your phone, whether you're using Android Auto as a standalone app on your phone or it has connected to a compatible Android Auto in-dash display.
Since only the apps and customization that you set up on your phone matter when using Android Auto, that means you get a completely unqiue and customized experience compared to your spouse, even when using the same car.
10. Android Auto plays by the rules of the road
Android Auto's clean and uncluttered interace is designed to keep you safe; it complies with standards set forth by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA). In other words, it's smarter and less prone to distract drivers with notifications and alerts.
11. You can't read Quora while driving
You won't find an app launcher in the Android Auto experience. As such, there's no temptation to reach over and quickly tap the icon that brings up the rest of your apps. As for games and other distractions, fuggedaboutit.
12. But you can read and respond to text messages
Well, to be precise, Google will read incoming texts aloud to you, and give you the opportunity to send a canned reply (like "Sorry, I'm driving") or dictate a custom message.
13. It works just like Google Now
Android users will immediately recognize the cards and interface as being quite similar to Google Now. That's actually by design. The smarts that tell you when to leave for an important meeting are the same brains that automatically provide you with turn-by-turn navigation to get you home from the airport. Further, Android Auto will only deliver the most relevant information when in the car so you can forget about blog updates, chat messages, and other distractions.
As Google Now and Google Assistant continue to get smarter, we can only imagine that the Android Auto experience benefits as well. Surely we aren't far off from dictating a grocery list to our car while we head home for the weekend.
14. Not all messaging apps are supported
Many of us have a favorite app for sending and receiving messages. Unfortunately, not all of them are fully supported by Android Auto. The list is growing, however, and already includes the likes of Google Hangouts, Google Messages, Whatsapp, Skype, and Kik. But, if yours is not among those approved, you'll have a difficult time getting messages when driving using Android Auto. (Which is a good thing, maybe?)
15. Google approves all of the apps
Unlike the totally open Wild West that is the Google Play Store, the apps for Android Auto are vetted and approved. Google manually reviews the apps submitted to ensure they meet safety standards and play nice with the platform. In short, this means no games or apps that require much thinking from the driver. Instead, look for more passive titles in areas such as music, news, podcasts, and messaging.
16. It’s not that new
Just because you're only now hearing about Android Auto doesn't mean it's new to the scene. Indeed, it was announced two years ago at Google I/O, Google's annual developer conference. Plus, Google introduced the Open Automotive Alliance which aims to bring about a better and smarter in-car experience.
17. It's a lot like Apple CarPlay
As usual, Apple and Google are doing more or less the same thing at the same time, in slightly different ways. For the most part, almost everything you can say about Android Auto you can also say about Apple CarPlay, and vice-versa. The main difference is an obvious one: CarPlay is for iPhone owners, while Android Auto is for anyone with an Android phone.
18. It'll no doubt improve rapidly
As helpful as Android Auto is today, things are only going to improve. And, when you have a competitor in the likes of Apple (with their similar Apple CarPlay platform), you can't exactly rest on your laurels. With that said, Android Auto is already a great way to pull together useful information (suggested destinations, upcoming appointments, and weather conditions) in an intuitive and distraction-free manner. Thanks to the most recent software update, you no longer need to purchase any additional hardware, so there's no harm in trying it out for your next car trip.